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The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini


The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

I have read autobiographies. I have read as-told-to autobiographies, where the subject will later come to claim that he has been misquoted. I have read biographies, everything from respectful scholarly tomes to cheap hit jobs. I have read fictionalized biographies and biographical fiction. But I don’t think I have read anything quite like THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HARRY HOUDINI. While the book itself is perfectly, if narrowly, delightful, I hope that its particular genre doesn’t catch on.

Part of this is due to the passage of time. Author Joe Posnanski, who has written an admirable and admiring biography of Negro League great Buck O’Neil (and a disastrously unlucky biography of Penn State coach Joe Paterno, which was penned as the Sandusky scandal was unfolding), understands this; it’s much easier to write a biography when you can talk to and interview the subject, and those who knew the subject. But Houdini died in 1926, over 90 years ago, and everyone who knew him has since passed away. That leaves the biographer with secondary sources. Still, there are Houdini biographies that cover nearly every facet of his life and are tailored to almost every individual taste.

"If you’re even vaguely interested in Houdini, Posnanski’s book is a great deal of fun and does a lot to separate the myths from the facts."

Where the smart-aleck reviewer asks, “Why, then, does the world need another Houdini biography?” the intrepid author has hit on a solution. THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HARRY HOUDINI is a biography, after a fashion, although a sketchy one. (Posnanski, faced with the period of Houdini’s life when he invested a good deal of time debunking spiritualism, literally says that he’s not interested and moves on to the next thing.) But the focus of the book is not so much on Houdini himself --- or even on the Houdini mythos, which is difficult enough to separate from reality --- but on the small group of people who are, in the 21st century, obsessed with Houdini.

Everybody needs a hobby. It is perfectly okay for someone to be interested in Houdini, and if that rises to the point of obsession, who am I to judge? I do not have an obsessive nature myself --- certainly not when it comes to collecting things. The people who Posnanski interviews and profiles in this book have that nature, and collect things, and a good part of the book is the author strolling through their collections. (The most comprehensive of these is that of cheesy TV magician David Copperfield, who has a literal warehouse of stuff related to Houdini specifically and magic in general.)

The central thesis of THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HARRY HOUDINI is that Houdini has had an outsize effect on current American society far and above his contemporaries. Which is not wrong, necessarily. Just last weekend, I was watching the Red Zone channel, and heard two separate announcers describe quarterbacks escaping a determined pass rush as being Houdini-like, this within the space of five minutes. Posnanski produces several similar examples, most of which explicate the fact that TV broadcasters have a limited well of metaphor to draw from than anything else. I don’t think you can question the general thesis, but I seriously doubt that Houdini’s legacy is quite as pervasive as Posnanski makes it out to be. He states, in one passage, that you simply can’t be ambivalent about Houdini. I am entirely pleased to be ambivalent about him, as I am about most things (except for Dr. Pepper, not putting beans in chili, and the perfidy of the New York Yankees).

The point I am trying to make here is this: If you are obsessed with Houdini, and you spend a long time talking to people who are, it is quite possible --- probable, even --- that you are going to come to the conclusion that Houdini’s legacy is a lot more widespread than perhaps it actually is.

THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HARRY HOUDINI does two things very effectively. First, it lets Posnanski tell Houdini stories, which usually turn out to be interesting or fun. (This is one case where I wished I’d listened to the audiobook instead.) Posnanski takes a great deal of glee in relating the best stories --- and debunking the worst ones --- and his excitement is infectious. Secondly, he lets his interview subjects dunk on Houdini from time to time --- pointing out that he wasn’t a great card or technical magician. (I do wish Posnanski had gotten to interview the late Ricky Jay, who had been critical of Houdini as well.)

As for the rest of the book, while it’s technically fine, it doesn’t quite capture the imagination. The epigram at the beginning is from Patrick Culliton, an actor turned Houdini obsessive, and Posnanski describes his struggles getting to talk to him or obtaining a copy of his detailed (and rare) Houdini biography. And then, at the end, he gets to meet Culliton --- and the most impactful story that he has to tell is about a Florida dinner theater experience.

If you’re even vaguely interested in Houdini, Posnanski’s book is a great deal of fun and does a lot to separate the myths from the facts. But if you’re primarily interested in a biography qua biography, the long divergent stretches where the author talks to Houdini obsessives will either strike you as engaging, in which case you’re fine, or annoying bordering on grating, in which case you’re probably in the market for a different Houdini biography.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on October 25, 2019

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini
by Joe Posnanski

  • Publication Date: October 13, 2020
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501137247
  • ISBN-13: 9781501137242